News analysis

Brexit: Pro-Europe Scots could hold the key

The United Kingdom's likelihood of staying in the European Union, or even remaining united at all, may rest in the hands of people like Mr Jim Scampie.

The 80-year-old retiree, who lives in this town famous for the Royal & Ancient, the club that sets the rules of golf everywhere except the US, has not made up his mind which way he will vote on Thursday.

Of one thing he is certain, however.

"Whatever happens I won't be around to see the fallout of the decision, but my children will," says Mr Scampie, who spent his working life with a small Scottish broadcaster in Aberdeen. "This calls for deep reflection. Should Scotland vote differently from England I fear there will be major consequences. The best would be for both Scotland and England to vote in the same direction."

Pro-Europe Scotland may hold the key to the June 23 referendum on Brexit, as a potential British exit from the EU is called. With the majority of British folk seemingly split down the middle on an issue that has opened deep rifts in the nation, sparsely populated Scotland may hold the balance in a vote some say could affect not just the UK, but perhaps even the European project entirely.

Adding to political uncertainty in the US of a post-Obama future and rising political risk in Asia, financial markets are leery about the referendum throwing up a "Leave" result. Fearful of the consequences, world leaders, from President Barack Obama of the US to Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have called on the UK to stay in the European Union.

Scotland is key to this because it held a referendum in 2014 on whether to stay in the UK, or leave. At the time, the Scots opted overwhelmingly to stay with Britain. But that sentiment could change in the event of a Brexit. Indeed, a drive through parts of Scotland revealed little of the excitement that seems to have seized England and its 53 million people, 10 times the number in Scotland. The main Scottish parties are all for Europe unlike in England, where the Conservatives are split and Labour is for "Remain", albeit half-heartedly.

One reason for this is that immigration as an issue is less salient in Scotland than it is to the south of the country. The median age in Scotland is about 42.2 years, two years higher than the national average. This place needs migrants, actually, as the population ages.

These issues are not lost on Scottish voters, although opinions sometimes vary.

"As a rich man, I'd say it would be good for the UK to leave the EU," says Mr Bahman Nohashraf, proprietor of the Balmore Guest House in Edinburgh, Scotland's main city. "But if you were to think of the national interest, it is best served by staying in."

Life has been kind to the hard-working emigre who arrived from Iran 30 years ago. He owns two more properties on the same road, and has British nationality.

"Ideally, of course, it would be good if the UK exited Europe and then we held a referendum that separated us from Britain and kept us in the EU. Then, Scotland could serve as Britain's window into the European Union. That'd help our Scottish economy tremendously."

The latest opinion polls, which suggest a thin edge for the Remain camp, would indicate Scots may not need to worry over much on Friday morning, when the results come out. No Englishman wants to lose Scotland and some polls indicate that British voters' worries about losing Scotland overwhelm any trepidations they have about the fallout of exiting the EU.

A poll for The Herald newspaper by the BMG group indicated that 68 per cent of UK voters cited Scottish independence as their "least preferred option" when compared with Britain leaving EU, which recorded 32 per cent support.

Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has unequivocally said that if Scotland is forced to leave the EU against the will of Scots, a second referendum on staying within the UK would be triggered.

But most Scots are not waiting around for all that. On Thursday, they look set to overwhelmingly vote Remain.

"There are good things and bad things associated with Remain, but I figure leaving is worse," says Ms Juliana Van Der Laan, 36, a flight attendant with Easyjet, based in Edinburgh. "Mind you, thanks to immigration I nearly died - because of the pressure on the NHS (National Health Service), an MRI I needed was delayed until almost the last minute. So I have good reason to be sympathetic to the Leave crowd. But you have to think beyond yourself."


Correction note: An earlier version of this story gave the nationality of Mr Bahman Nohashraf as Scottish. This has been corrected to say British. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2016, with the headline 'Pro-Europe Scots could hold the key to vote'. Print Edition | Subscribe